Communicate like a CIO: Three keys

The CIO’s role has dramatically transformed over the years.

Gone are the mainframe-y days where these first-ever IT shot-callers were die-hard technologists. You know the type. There’s “cool nerdy” and there’s “not-so-cool nerdy;” these were the bad kind of nerdy equipped with plastic pocket protectors, Hollerith Card paper cuts and precious little business acumen.

Also mostly gone are the 1980s-to-Y2K-to-2010 corps of CIOs whose “let’s-build-a-datacenter” on-site mindset bowed to the throne of distributed computing and all its user-centric glory.

DetroitToday, the cloud is king, and the never-to-rest CIO must re-shuffle his (only eight percent are female) career deck once again — this time, with the fickle consumer calling all the shots.

“Great,” today’s CIO must be thinking, “just when I figure this gig out, everything changes.” Ironic, isn’t it? The industry — technology — that disrupts everything else has its leadership minions disrupted more than just about any other. Oh, and all this career uncertainty in a position that didn’t even exist a few short decades ago.

Okay, so a lot’s changed. Great. But what hasn’t changed is the way CIOs need to communicate — at least the effective ones, anyway. Tech think tank Gartner claims that CIOs have an average job lifespan of four short years, so it follows that the only ones in this change-or-die career who have a chance for success not only understand tech’s impact on the biz, but who also communicate inordinately well.

But you’re not a CIO, right? In fact, you’re probably not a C-anything (yet). So what does all this mean for you? Well, success leaves clues, and since anyone Downtownreading this is most likely in at least some sort of a shark-tank-like competitive career, emulating those at high levels who’ve succeeded communicatively will pay off as you drive your ideas forward, regardless of what industry you’re in.

My quarter-century of professional communication experience has taught me that are the three rhetorical principles separating the leadership wheat from the career-stagnation chaff, and those include: 1) clarity, 2) inspiration and 3) outcome.

Clarity. Inspiration. Outcome. C-I-O. Get it? Take a look:

  • Clarity. This is the blocking-and-tackling of your communicative process, and really, it’s the most understandable since we’re already hard-wired to do this stuff. At a high level, here are a few options (many more are available if you do just a little investigative hustle) helping you tactically construct your messages with resolute clarity. One of my favorites is the book Presenting to Win, The Art of Telling Your Story, which shows multiple ways to think through and present info, enabling you to pick what works best. But, there are many others, too, including the classic: a) state what the problem in the industry is; b) state what the ideal solution is; and then, c) state why your thoughts/product/solution is uniquely better. Other communicative methods include the Rhetorical Triangle, the Inverted Pyramid approach and Laswell’s Communication Model. Finally, you can simply ask the questions reporters are typically trained to consider — the what it is that you want to communicate, the how it is unique and the who it’s for and the when it’ll matter (note: I’ll get to the why in the next graph). Oh, and if you’re giving a presentation to explain your idea, you might want to apply Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 approach. I don’t care which clarity treatment(s) you pick; you’re smart enough to figure that out. The key is to think this stuff out in advance, showing precisely the key pain points you’re solving, for whom you’re solving them and then aligning your communications accordingly. Don’t just wing it; this stuff’s too important. Oh, and if your grammar is as horrid as, say, a Detroit School Board president (especially if part of your deliverable involves anything written), have someone whose editorial chops you trust review it first, and then actually take their advice.
  • Inspiration. The most impactful and effective way people change through communication is by impacting them at the gut level, helping them wrap their emotional arms around your rhetoric and then gently guiding them as they come to their own “aha moment.” Think about it: Are you ever impressed by facts and figures…do you ever consistently remember them? Not so much. But, what about the times when someone’s moved you at an emotional level? That’s what sticks. That matters. It’s precisely at the moment when shared beliefs are realized that real change happens and inspiration drives the communicative equation — resulting in behavior change. Think about it: Nike doesn’t tell you about the technology in its shoes, does it? No. Rather, Nike celebrates gutsy athletes and raw athleticism, letting you inspire yourself — you believe what Nike believes; you want to Just Do It. Apple doesn’t tell you the number of megapixels are in its cameras, does it? No. Instead, Apple lets you dream you can be a great photographer with its “Shot on iPhone 6s” commercials and photos — letting you come to your (conspicuously similar to Apple’s) own conclusion and inspiring yourself with that shared, emotion-driven belief. Apple doesn’t tell you the number of megapixels are in its cameras, does it? No. Instead, Apple makes you dream you can be a world-class photographer with its “Shot on iPhone 6s” commercials and photos — letting you come to your (conspicuously similar to Apple’s) own conclusion and inspiring yourself with that shared, emotion-driven belief. So, if you want to bring about true change (i.e., convince your tech-averse and luddite CEO that the cloud is the future; make the case for that new product or a new hire; persuade Lindsay Lohan that a drugs-first approach to every decision is not a sustainable life-strategy), then impact them first at the belief level, not at the facts and figures level. Facts and figures are useful, but just don’t start there. For as Simon Sinek’s Start With Why approach bathes you in its wisdom, it’s only when you tap into and align with another’s belief system first that real persuasion, real change happens. Dig this:

Those who lead inspire us … we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to … not for them, but for ourselves. It’s those who “start with why” that have the ability to inspire. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with those who believe what you believe.

— Simon Sinek

  • Outcome. This is Steven Covey’s classic “begin-with-the-end-in-mind” approach to effective communication. And, it’s good to quantify this or make your end-state objective in some way — starting with your target’s pain-point and then working backward. Maybe you want to develop a mission statement, increase sales by 12 percent, obtain forgiveness, or, say, coordinate an ambush intervention for Tom Cruise proving to him that he’s certifiably insane and just needs to stop. Whatever your end-state is, envision it. Know it. Own it and be proud of it. Handling this bit of work at the outset will guide everything else you do.

So that’s your high-level outline. Pretty simple, which is precisely the point: persuasive communication should be easy to understand. That’s because communication is a receiver-based activity — in other words, the only message that matters is the one that’s perceived by your target — not the one that’s sent by you. And, the easier you make the communication process on the recipient, the greater the chance that you’ll be successful.

Ben Franklin classically, cleverly stated that: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” In other words, communicating well does, in fact, take a bit of effort — effort that you’d not normally spend in casual conversation. Yet, if the goal is to achieve a specific, desired outcome, incorporating these success strategies will be time well spent.

Oh, and remember, even though I gave these to you in C-I-O order,  you’ll now execute them in O-I-C fashion since you always begin with the end in mind and your communication always starts with your inspirational “why” statement. Once you execute on the “O” and the “I,” by the time you get to the “C” details (your clarity statements), your audience has already bought into your outcome and been persuaded and inspired. By then, the details exist simply to support the already agreed-to beliefs.

Easy peasy.

Good rhetorical hygiene will help you communicate like a champ not only if you are among the exec-suite technorati (like a CIO), but also if your career is in nursing, law, marketing, criminal justice, dog grooming or whatever it is the Kardashians do.

The words you use matter. The words you use impact real change. And, the words you use literally mean the difference between dollars flowing into or out of your paycheck, your business’ front door or through your company’s website.

I just gave you the tools. Now go make it happen.

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